A man suspected of fatally shooting eight people, the majority of whom were Asian American, at three different Atlanta massage parlours Tuesday evening has been charged with murder and assault.
Cherokee County authorities said 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long was charged Wednesday with four counts of murder and one count of assault in Woodstock, where one of the massage parlour shootings took place.
In total, six of the people killed as a result of the shootings were Asian and two were white. All but one were women.
Earlier on Wednesday, police said Long, a white male, may have had a “sexual addiction” and lashed out at places he saw as sources of “temptation.”
“He apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” Cherokee County sheriff spokesman Capt. Jay Baker said.
Atlanta Police chief Rodney Bryant said Long was in custody and had claimed responsibility for the shootings, but added it was too soon to determine if the attack was a hate crime.
“We are still early in this investigation, so we cannot make that determination at this moment,” he said.
Police arrested Long late Tuesday night after a coordinated traffic stop in Crisp County, roughly 240 kilometres south of Atlanta.
Baker said Long was found with a nine millimetre firearm in his car at the time of his arrest. It is unclear whether the gun was purchased illegally.
The shootings have sparked outrage among Asian communities, who viewed the attacks as racially motivated.
Hate crimes against Asian communities have skyrocketed by almost 150 per cent in the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, according to an analysis of police department statistics released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) earlier this month.
The CSHE said thousands of anti-Asian hate crimes were reported to police between the months of March and May of 2020. Asian American communities were subject to much of the blame for the pandemic, which was frequently referred to as the “China virus” by then-president Donald Trump.
Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia House, said the shootings appear to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.”
“We have been taught as Asian-Americans to keep our heads down because our parents believed it was safer for us,” she said.
“But what’s happened is that we are now invisible. And when things happen to us, people don’t speak up until a tragedy like this one occurs.”
Despite the ongoing investigation into the gunman’s motivation, Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta said the “broader context” of the shooting “cannot be ignored.”
“The shootings happened under the trauma of increasing violence against Asian Americans nationwide, fuelled by white supremacy and systemic racism,” the group said a statement.
“We are heartbroken by these acts of violence.”
Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said police first responded to the shooting at 4:55 p.m. Tuesday evening. They arrived at Youngs Asian Massage Parlor, near Woodstock, to find five people were shot.
Two people died at the scene, and three were taken to a hospital where two died, said Reynolds.
Less than an hour later, Georgia State Patrol spokesman Lt. Mark Riley said officers were alerted to a robbery at Gold Spa in Atlanta where they found three women had been shot. Soon after, he said they received another call at Aromatherapy Spa, just down the road, where the police discovered another woman had been shot.
Shortly after, police said they were notified by members of Long’s family, who indicated their son may be behind the attacks. Officers said they were able to track Long’s cell phone, which helped them coordinate his arrest.
At the time of Long’s arrest, police said the man appeared to be driving to Florida to attack “some type of porn industry.”
Regardless of the shooter’s motivation, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said “it is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop.”
“We certainly will not begin to blame victims,” she said, adding that police had only ever previously been called to the massage parlours in her city for minor possible theft.
Racism against Asian Americans has been a black mark in U.S. history for hundreds of years. Anti-Asian racism has taken a variety of forms over the course of America’s history and still exists today, from racist stereotypical tropes denigrating Asian Americans as unclean to blaming them for viral diseases such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the 1870s smallpox outbreak San Francisco.
Moreover, it was enshrined into law in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was designed to prevent Chinese American labourers from entering the U.S. as a result of widespread xenophobia.
“The Chinese Exclusion Acts were not repealed until 1943, and then only in the interests of aiding the morale of a wartime ally during World War II,” U.S. government archives note.
In 1942, former-U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which saw all persons considered a “threat” evacuated from the West Coast and placed in internment camps. The result was the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese men, women, and children — many of whom were already second and third-generation Americans.
On Wednesday, U.S. vice-president Kamala Harris condemned the recent uptick in anti-Asian racism in the U.S.
“We are not yet clear about the motive. But I do want to say to our Asian-American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people, knowing the increasing level of hate crime against our Asian-American brothers and sisters,” she said.
U.S. President Joe Biden called the attack “very, very troublesome.”
More to come.
— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters